Date6 Nov 2020
AuthorAli Montag

Sunday CEO Coulter Lewis: We are not a product company

November 6, 2020
7 min read
Ali Montag
Ali MontagHead of Community

In 2017, Coulter Lewis bought his first home. It was in Boulder, Colorado, and it had a big backyard for his young children and dog. But homeownership had a learning curve. Lewis found himself shopping for products he’d never considered before, things like fertilizer and weed killer. He was struck by how unhealthy it all seemed.

“It felt so wrong,” Lewis says, remembering a trip to his local hardware store. “You can smell it from 50 yards away. It’s just sacks of industrial chemicals. They all talk about how good they are at killing this or that, but not about growing things.”

Lewis did a bit more research on the 90 million lawns in the U.S. — which cover 40 million acres of land, 10 times more land than all organic farms combined — and was stunned by the overuse of chemicals.

“A managed lawn gets about 5 times more pesticides per acre than an industrial farm,” he explains. “Typically, the way it works is that you cover your entire property in pesticides and herbicides just in case you might have a problem. It’s a little bit like taking vicodin in case you get a backache.”

Lewis, who previously co-founded the healthy snack brand Quinn with his wife, saw an opportunity to bring “better for you” to lawn care.

“Not only is [pesticide use] an environmental catastrophe, it’s also not where people’s values are,” he says. “It’s not how they want to treat their backyard. It felt like consumers had already moved so far from where the industry was, but the industry never changed at all. To me that was really exciting.”

Today, Lewis is the CEO of Sunday, a direct-to-consumer brand that sells customized, eco-friendly lawn care. In 2019, Sunday closed a $9.5 million Series A round with participation from Forerunner Ventures and Tusk.

I asked Lewis to share his playbook for building a brand targeted at homeowners, tackling new markets, and outthinking Amazon. His answers have been lightly edited and condensed.

What’s the biggest opportunity you see in building a direct to consumer business for suburban markets rather than big, urban cities?

“I remember very early on, when I first started, I talked to people in cities, investment funds and journalists, and there was a sense of, ‘This isn’t even a thing. There are no lawns.’ The lack of awareness was really mind-blowing.

And I get it, I lived in New York, and when I was there I probably would have felt the same way. But for me, it was a moment where I was like ‘Gosh I want to stick up for the rest of the country right now, I want to make a product that is really for the average American.’ There are 90 million American homes with lawns already, and when new homes are built, they’re built with lawns. They’re only increasing. It’s not something to give up on. It’s something to focus on.

If you think about your childhood, it depends on where you grew up of course, but a lot of our best memories circle around our time outside and in our backyards. It’s a huge part of our lives. It’s your little plot of land. It’s your piece of the Earth.

I saw all of this value in the space, and I clearly understood the customer. But what I realized, and the reason why no one had gone down this path before, is that most people who build new companies, who were in that environment, who lived in cities, didn’t seem to feel it the same way.”

What do you think is most misunderstood about suburban markets?

“The scale. I think there’s an assumption that those people don’t exist. The entire demographic gets discounted as, ‘Maybe when we’re really massive we’ll go after that little small piece,’ and that’s entirely wrong. The largest, generational brands, that is their foundation. It’s underestimated. That’s the biggest misconception.”

How do you acquire customers?

“We’ve used traditional channels to find customers so far. There’s a perception that it’s just people in young age groups in urban centers that are using Instagram, but it’s really not true. Those platforms go across most demographics.

Our customer base does skew younger. When I say the ‘average American household,’ one caveat is that we do skew toward the younger, first-time homebuyer, the new family.”

How did you launch the brand?

“We had a beta year, where we built out the website and built out the shell of what Sunday could be. Then we drove traffic to the website from Facebook and other platforms. People would go through the sequence thinking they were going to buy something, and at the very last step it would say, ‘Oh, sorry, it’s actually not for sale yet. But if you want to be part of our beta group, you can fill out this survey.’ We ended up having a huge number of people that were open to us talking to them. That provided this constant flow of potential customers to talk to.

For us, it was invaluable. We were able to bring people in and get their feedback and have actual conversations, to ground some of our assumptions when they were right, and also change assumptions when they were wrong. When it comes to physical products, you’re making a big investment and those decisions can not turn on a dime.”

How do you think about scaling into new markets? How do you convince homeowners in our parents’ generation to stop buying Roundup, and shop for something eco-friendly online?

That’s the pinnacle of impact. It’s the difference between getting a cross-fitter to do two more pull ups versus getting someone to work out for the first time. One of those is a lot more impactful than the other. We operate on those first sit ups.

We’re bringing people into caring for their property in a much better way, but maybe that’s not why they signed up.

How do you get to know those customers?

“It’s really not about Survey Monkeys and multiple choice answers. It’s about having an hour and a half conversation with people, and getting that more ethnographic, deep understanding. The outcome of that isn’t a chart, but it’s an empathy you carry around. You can think, ‘If I say this, they’re going to say that.’ You just know what that conversation looks and sounds like, because you can feel those people. That’s essential. I brought that from my last experience building the Quinn brand, the understanding of what the average shopper looks like versus my little bubble.

You really need to understand what consumers’ needs are. When they’re in that aisle, thinking about buying that thing, the emotional experience they’re going through is different than a 25-year-old living in the city.”

How do you see e-commerce changing?

“There’s a shift that I see happening in e-comm, that I like to think is e-comm 2.0. E-comm 1.0 was: ‘It’s convenient and you might save some money.’ Those were the two key value propositions. Amazon has those two on lock at this point. If you’re competing on those two value props, good luck.

The next dimension is expertise, support, and experience. Stitch Fix has been a great brand that exemplifies this. The idea that someone would say, ‘I want to go to the mall, but I really need more help, so I’m going to go online,’ is a fascinating, backward thing. You can get the most help, the most support for how you dress online.

The same is true for us. People will choose us over the store not because it is delivered to their door and easy, but because they need more help.

What we are not is a product company. We sell an end-to-end experience. On our website, the only thing you can buy is a full season plan that will walk you through a full year of caring for your property along with a soil test, and all of this data, and hand holding.

When we’re in a position where we say, ‘We offer this product, here you go, buy it and good luck,’ we’re not doing our job. We’re not doing something that is differentiated enough. In a lot of ways, what we’re trying to be really, really good at is traditional, old school, really good, customer service.”

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